Several months ago, a friend of mine posted the picture of a motorised tricycle (the type that you come across in Lilongwe carrying passengers these days) with the comment, “Ma engineer a ku Malawi ndi aka komwe simungapange?” (What kind of engineers do we have in Malawi who cannot even attempt to manufacture something like this?)
Malawian engineers and scientists have been the subject of much ridicule because there is not much by way of their products or innovations to show the world. In fact, if you see any gadget in Malawi, it will not be a local product. When I was young, many gadgets that I picked up used to have the inscription “Made in England”. My little mind believed then that God had designated certain countries as makers of things and others, including our own, as mere consumers.
Today, several decades later, my belief is radically different from the one I held when I was young. My take today is that our scientists, our technologists and our engineers have more than what it takes to manufacture things and to innovate. Our culture does not. It all hinges on culture, in the final analysis.
First and foremost, it is necessary to have artisans around you who have developed the habit of fashioning things to high precision. You will need to get the engine block done, pistons moulded, and all the other parts fashioned. This is not necessarily an engineer’s work. It is artisans that do this kind of work. The engineer will design the unit to the minutest detail then pass it on to the artisans to do the manufacturing work. The engineer’s work is like that of an architect. Fortunately for architects, there are many competent bricklayers around who are able to translate the architects’ designs into tangible structures. The equivalent of bricklayers for engineering is what is lacking in Malawi.
Get me right, I am not saying Malawian artisans cannot be developed to the standard required for precision manufacturing. They surely can, but currently there is no industry that will gainfully absorb them. It is a catch 22 situation, more or less: no industry because there are no artisans; no artisans because there is no industry. The only way out of this is to have a deliberate policy by government to support local production, as will be discussed later.
Then there is the question of marketing to be considered. Suppose, for one moment, that you suddenly have artisans that can translate an engineer’s design into a working unit. Against all odds, you have manufactured a car. Who will buy that car? The Malawians that I know will not even want to touch it. Endless reasons will be given why they would prefer a Toyota, a Nissan, a Kia or indeed a Mahindra to your product. Mind you, the car will not match the quality of any of the existing brands, certainly not initially.
Meanwhile, you will have spent a good fortune to see your design through but will not be able to recoup your investment. The funding for such investment will have been gotten as if through fire because, more likely than not, local banks will have ruthlessly turned you away. Banks are quick to turn their backs on projects deemed to yield shaky incomes. What will be needed will be an assurance of support from a large economic body such as government that they will buy the units that you manufacture, for the sole purpose of encouraging local production and import substitution.
These impediments to local manufacturing are more cultural than scientific in the sense that they are to do with the manner in which things are done rather than the scientific ability (or lack thereof) of our scientists, engineers and technologists.
A quick search within ourselves will reveal that we have people of Malawian origin on the forefront of technology. The deceased veteran politician, Willie Chokani’s son, professor Ndaona Chokani, once conducted a piece of research for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), an organisation that pushes technology to its known limits. It is possible that his research played some role in placing roving robots on Mars or sending the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto. Chokani is an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. If he lived in Malawi, I do not think he would be such a distinguished personality in science because the local culture would not have given him the opportunity to be so distinguished.